Revelations and repeated listens with Layla
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
If there’s any benefit to all this time indoors, it’s in the time available to listen and re-listen to some favorites I have on the shelf. One that’s taken up a significant amount of time the past few days is Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, by the all-too-short-lived Derek and the Dominos. Letting this album repeat is definitely not a chore, and the new stories I’ve been able to pick up along the way on it have only made all those listening hours more rewarding.
A few years ago, I wrote a piece on this album, primarily detailing the dynamic between Eric Clapton and Duane Allman as its signature voices, but also making sure to highlight Bobby Whitlock’s contributions and how they all formed something greater than just another Clapton solo record.
There are some updates to that piece that should be noted, like how Clapton handled all guitar duties on the album’s first three tracks — the album was essentially recorded chronologically, with Allman joining on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” forward. And I may not have been totally clear on who’s playing which riff on the opening of the “Layla” itself, though that’s illustrated best on this video of producer Tom Dowd, where he illustrates that by breaking down the track itself.
A reader clued me in first to that Dowd video, and then later to Whitlock’s YouTube channel, where he’s been sharing stories in front of his fireplace, a good number of them centering on his days with Derek and the Dominos, and the configurations that led to that band, including Delany & Bonnie and Friends, and the group that helped record George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. He has plenty of insights, and all of them have led to me running back to the album to uncover them.
For example, the opening bolero on their interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” came from Allman — he first played it, and Clapton encouraged him to keep it on the track. And its his estimation that Allman’s slide part on “I Am Yours” is his finest on the album. The song itself is a poem by Nizami, adapted by Clapton into the song that now graces the album.
But beyond Allman’s obvious influence on the sessions, the greatest revelations have come in learning of how brilliantly Clapton worked as the album took shape. Naturally, it’s best illustrated in a song recorded before Allman arrived.
Listening to Whitlock break down the absolutely ridiculous nature of Clapton’s ear and musical mind in the recording of “Keep on Growing” put this over the top. Born out of a jam session, the band broke to listen to its playback, but Clapton stayed behind to follow another idea and overdub a guitar part.
“We didn’t know anything, except that he was putting on another guitar. So he was doing second part harmony. Now that’s really difficult, if you’re a singer or something — my mom could sit at the piano and sing her second part, without the melody. I could never figure that out.
“But he put a second part on it. And I thought, ‘well, here we go.’ And then he said, ‘run that back, let me put another one on.’ And he put a third part guitar, without listening to the first two. So he’s just playing this real sporadic stuff. And I went, ‘[laughs] this is gonna be really good when we finish with it, this is gonna be awesome.’ I knew he had something going on. And when he got finished with that, he says, ‘just one more run through.’ ... So when he finished, he says, ‘all right, now let’s go listen.
“So I think in all total, there were five guitars on it, all Eric. And when they turned it on, turned up the faders, it was like paint, acrylic paint, spilling out of speakers ... I was part of this wash of sound, you know?”
The story continues, and highlighting the collaborative nature of the band, Whitlock apparently took 20 minutes to pull together lyrics to go with the music, and he and Clapton harmonized on the vocals to finish the third and final track before Allman’s arrival.
That’s impressive in its own right, but going back and listening to the final two minutes or so of “Keep on Growing” becomes an experience even more mind-bending than before. Listen as all the guitars interweave with each other. They’re each playing a distinct solo over the main jam and it’s not hard to envision one of them working on its own as the primary solo. But that’s not what’s going on — the parts all interlock, each filling in a gap and supporting the other parts, creating an orchestra of melodic components that forms its own wall of sound. That all this came out of Clapton’s head, in the moment, with no paper and no planning and without even the prior audio as a guide, has kept my brain spinning for days.
The record is one that continues to reveal new layers and new surprises as the years pass. Some songs stand out and fill a moment, as “Keep on Growing” is now. In the past it’s been “Thorn Tree in the Garden,” or “Key to the Highway,” or “Bell Bottom Blues,” or the title track, but the album is so strong that any one can rise up and be the song that defines a day.
But like the individual guitar tracks, the songs don’t operate in a vacuum. They work together and solidify into another piece entirely, taking the message and the moment and colliding together to coalesce into its own organism. Single songs are fine, and they have their place, but the way they hang together over two records is an art form unto itself. And with any great artwork, there’s always more to learn about it.
Feb. 3, 2021
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org